Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews *The Lizard* by Michael Bryson

Do you miss The Danforth Review, that awesome online literary quarterly that published such a wide range of fiction, criticism and interviews? Yeah, I miss it too, but it's cool to know that (one of) the reason(s) it is currently on hiatus is is in favour of founding publisher and editor Michael Bryson's "struggling attempts at creating literature."

I just finished reading Bryson's third book, a collection of short stories called The Lizard and I think it's worth the struggle. This is a small spare book, 117 pages of generously leaded pages, and spare also in terms of details. One of the ways I think of the short story is as a bright spotlight, trained on the ground. A character approaches it in darkness, then when s/he enters it, is brilliantly illuminated for the time it takes to cross the spotlight, then returns to darkness. The shape of the story is how and where the author trains the spotlight; the character(s)'s actual actions and dialogue just life going forward.

I think the best stories in this collection are the ones that remind me of expertly focussed spotlights. From a man whose relationship is probably disintegrating while his father's love life takes off ("May the Road Rise"--great title) to a guy who sees his childhood friend resorting to violence (maybe) ("Hit"), there aren't a lot of resolutions here, or many answers.

If you are familiar with the term tolerance for ambiguity, you probably learned it in a psychology or education class, but a reader of my acquaintance uses it to describe a reading style. Readers with a high tolerance for ambiguity don't mind not having much backstory in a piece of fiction, provided we have some sense that there is a logical one. In a good story, we're fine with not knowing why things happened, nor what the outcome is--if the author can shape the piece so that it works without those things.

"Six Million Million Miles" was, to me, the perfect story for the ambiguously tolerant (like me), because Bryson counters the randomness of writing any story about a few moments in anyone's life with how random anyone's life actually is. This story is only a couple guys sitting around, talking. They're both around forty, both in relationships that are uncertain, talking about a going into business together as soon as they can decide what that business should be. Then a house down the street explodes.

They worry about it, talk about it, watch the flames shooting into the sky. Then they go back inside because one of the guys' sort of girlfriends has arrived. She has brought someone with her--a date? The evening progresses, the other guy's girlfriend comes over too, there's another explosion, they order some pizza.

What a terrible summary! But this is a beautiful story, so much more as a whole than as the sum of it's parts--I noticed that, reading it over in bits and pieces just now to write this review. The story works because it feels random, just a bunch of stuff that happened over a few hours, but the end I was left with a powerful feeling of how anyone's life is so much more than he or she can understand, let alone explain.

Not every story worked on me with this intensity, but I think that might have been partly my fault. *The Lizard* is an easy book to like, and I think I read it too fast, missing some of the bigger payoffs because I was enjoying the little ones: a toddler falling down in the park, the ins and outs of work in a pet store, a quiet reaction to 9/11.

This is why Rose-coloured reviews are not real reviews--if this were professional, I'd reread immediately and get it all worked out. But since I'm happily unprofessional me, I'm going to mull it over for a while, fill in some ambiguities in my own head, and look forward to when I eventually work my way back to this fascinating book.



AMT said...

i like this term 'tolerance for ambiguity'. mine is huge. i will read a story which begins with the line of dialogue 'good idea, ToasterMan, we SHOULD buy pinto beans for that camel!' if there is a promise of pay off.

also, don't write that story.

August said...

Rebecca, if ambiguity is your thing, I highly recommend you pick up The Pets, by Bragi Ólafsson. I think it was one of the best things I read in 2009, maybe *the best*, and it's all about ambiguity.

Michael Bryson said...

Hi Rebecca -
Thanks for this review. Very rewarding to hear engaged comments such as these. All the best with your writing!

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

Well, you're welcome, of course, Michael--it's a wonderful book!

日月神教-向左使 said...